Today, March 8th, we would like to shed the light on our industry’s successful women and call for more of this talent.
Only 5% of search-fund entrepreneurs are women, according to a Stanford GSB Selected Observations study in 2019. In this article, we analyze what could be driving this regrettable outcome and what we can do to promote change.
According to research conducted by Deloitte, workplaces that prioritize inclusivity and diversity are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial goals, six times more likely to innovate, six times, better at anticipating and responding effectively to change, and they generate 30% more revenue per employee. Moreover, McKinsey & Company’s Global Institute report found that narrowing the gender gap could add between $12 and $28 trillion to the global GDP.
This article analyzes the issue of the underrepresentation of women in search funds in connection with other contexts of society to understand what we, as active members of the search fund community, can do differently to ensure full, effective, and equitable use of this source of talent.
Women in Senior Business Positions
Starting from the top, women are outnumbered by men in leadership positions in the corporate sector on a global scale. Women are minimally represented on executive boards; they represent less than a third of the boards of the world’s largest publicly traded corporate entities. A waste of talent and a loss of economic development opportunities continues whenever highly skilled women’s talents are not used. As per various studies, companies with higher female representation at the highest levels of management perform better organizationally and financially.
It is no news that private equity is a male-dominated industry with work and life experiences rooted in investment banking, which has long been stereotypical of a male-dominated profession. Conscious and subconscious biases still prevail and generate discriminatory attitudes and situations that make it especially hard for women to fit in. Female employees are assumed to be capable of working hard only until they have children, and it is often assumed they will prioritize their partner’s career; thus, they receive significantly less investment in mentoring, education, and career advancement.
The process to transform such work environments and cultures is frustratingly slow, but it is feasible, and we must take advantage of the moral and practical changes that the post-COVID-19 scenario is offering to carry out these transformations. Integrating unbiased cultures and values in firm programs is the key, for example, by stimulating female leadership programs and workshops that target both high-potential employees and the supervisors who choose candidates.
In addition, our roles as husbands, brothers, fathers, and colleagues need to change. We need to take on our fair share of responsibility in our personal lives, take on the duties that are ours, and support our partners, sisters, and colleagues so that they can take calculated professional risks.
Building trust among coworkers can boost productivity, morale, and self-assurance.
“A high-trust environment fosters what some call psychological safety, resulting in a more open and collaborative work culture”
And as we all know, people with high self-confidence are more confident about making decisions and are more likely to take calculated risks.
Women must be risk seekers in our society to bloom, and taking risks may be a necessary step for them to actively pursue success. When asked how she became the first female CEO of a television network in a Huffington Post interview, Kay Koplovitz responded:
“You have to put one foot in front of the other and start on your journey. You have to be comfortable that you don’t know exactly how you are going to get to the results that you want to see. There is going to be experimentation along the way. And you have to be comfortable that you can think your way through and execute your way through to the desired outcome. I expected to be successful. I wanted to be successful.”
Women in search funds
However, there are less obvious reasons for women to be underrepresented in search funds, an ecosystem formed by young entrepreneurs and visionary investors that share an open mindset and high levels of professionalism, characteristics that typically come along with the relatively unbiased screening criteria and more balanced results that we are not observing.
In fact, some visible investors in the search fund community—such as Sarah Rosenthal (TTCER), Sarita Sood (Seronera Capital Partners), and Paz Ambrosy (Global Institutional Investors and ITACA Capital Partners)—are women and have visible roles at institutions that promote search funds, such as Stanford GSB or IE Business School. At the e-conference held in 2020 by IESE Business School, Peter Kelly—a well-known search fund entrepreneur and influential investor—stated that he would “interview with strong positive bias any woman with a good MBA raising or thinking to raise a search fund.”
So what is not working? We asked our IESE MBA ’11 colleague Lenka Kolarova—co-author of the IESE Search Fund Studies 2015, 2016, and 2018 and former investment director at a women-focused VC fund—about this phenomenon. She is up to date of literally all international search funds raised globally and receives orientation requests from many prospective searchers at IESE. Her answer was surprising and clear: “There is more resistance from candidates than from investors; we need to encourage women to take the path to become first-time CEOs.”
This is consistent with our experience at ITACA Capital Partners. In the last 18 months, we interviewed 47 search fund entrepreneurs, and only two were women. We need more, and we sense that part of the difficulties that women see in search funds have to do with (i) likely relocation and (ii) long-term commitments to investors who are expecting high returns.
But there is good news for female entrepreneurs thinking of launching a search fund:
- Female search fund entrepreneurs may find it easier to convince certain business owner profiles to sell them their business.
Business owners mostly care about legacy preservation, and it may be easier to woman to establish credibility on this promise. All the prejudices that work against them in large corporations, may work in favor in the minds of an owner in his 60’s or 70s willing to protect its employees and its name in a medium-sized town.
- Running an SME is very compatible with being a Mother or a Father.
We look here at another IESE MBA’11 colleague, Patricia Riopel, who raised a partnered search fund in 2015 and acquired the Canadian proofreading company Scribendi in 2017. The Company is growing above expectations, but still she and her partner Enrico Magnani found the flexibility to form a family in 2018. “Sure it requires some organization and planning, but ultimately we have more flexibility today as co-CEOs than we used to have in many other settings” and now again in 2021. With only one month to go for their second child, they have everything ready for their strong executive team to manage the company with the CEOs in leave of absence. In fact, work-life balance is – alongside financial upside – one of the main drivers of the Search Fund entrepreneurs we interview.
Get inspired and go for it
Search Funds are an outstanding career path for young, talented entrepreneur – male and female– that seek to have high impact in their workplace while maintaining the sense of balance and purpose. The task requires a combination of hard skills for research, sales, finance, marketing, operations, and soft skills necessary for negotiation, people management and investor relationships management. The Search Fund model provides with sponsorship and mentoring to execute and succeed in the process. If you are up to the task, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Graduate School of – Stanford Business, (2017) ‘A primer on search funds. A Practical guide to entrepreneurs embarking on a search fund’, pp.8-12
- Fromaget, M. (2019) ‘A lifetime of gender inequality: What investors can do’ p.9
- Jain-Link, P., Taylor Kennedy, J. & Bourgeois, T. (2020) ‘5 Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workplace’, Harvard Business Review, p.1
- IESE insights, (2012) ‘Ten Questions to Consider Before Making an Entrepreneurial Acquisition’
- Johnson, R. (2014) ‘Search Funds-What has made them work’, IESE Business School-University of Navarra, p.9
- Johnston, T. (2015), ‘What it Takes to be a Search Fund Entrepreneur’, Insights by Graduate School of Stanford Business, p.1